Carbon emissions worse than criminal damage

In a fairly surprising precedent, a jury in the United Kingdom aquitted six Greenpeace activists of criminal damage to a coal plant. In their defence, they argued that their scaling of the smokestack and attempt to paint “Gordon [Brown], bin it” on the side was justified because of the greenhouse gas emissions being produced by the plant:

Jurors accepted defence arguments that the six had a “lawful excuse” to damage property at Kingsnorth power station in Kent to prevent even greater damage caused by climate change. The defence of “lawful excuse” under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 allows damage to be caused to property to prevent even greater damage – such as breaking down the door of a burning house to tackle a fire.

The not-guilty verdict, delivered after two days and greeted with cheers in the courtroom, raises the stakes for the most pressing issue on Britain’s green agenda and could encourage further direct action.

NASA climatic scientist James Hansen testified in defence of the activists.

It is virtually certain that the Crown will appeal the decision, and highly likely that the appeal will succeed. That being said, the situation may be indicative of the British public gaining an appreciation for the gravity of the threat posed by climate change, and the intolerability of coal power in a forward-looking, carbon-reducing economy. The fact that the UK is mulling the approval of new coal plants is definitely a major blot on its record as a fairly progressive state, where climate change is concerned.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Carbon emissions worse than criminal damage”

  1. I haven’t read anything about the case, so I’m in a poor position to comment… but my opinion is that it has to be the (alleged) crime that is tried in court, not the cause. Whether the cause of climate change is morally right or morally wrong should have no bearing on whether the activists committed a crime or not.

    For me as a Canadian, the case of the FLQ comes to mind. Whether Quebec separatism had moral merits had no bearing on whether the FLQ kidnappings were criminal.

  2. In criminal law, necessity may be either a possible justification or an exculpation for breaking the law. Defendants seeking to rely on this defense argue that they should not be held liable for their actions as a crime because their conduct was necessary to prevent some greater harm and when that conduct is not excused under some other more specific provision of law such as self defense.

    For example, a drunk driver might contend that s/he drove her/his car to get away from a kidnap (cf. North by Northwest). Most common law and civil law jurisdictions recognize this defense, but only under limited circumstances. Generally, the defendant must affirmatively show (i.e., introduce some evidence) that (a) the harm s/he sought to avoid outweighs the danger of the prohibited conduct s/he is charged with; (b) s/he had no reasonable alternative; (c) s/he ceased to engage in the prohibited conduct as soon as the danger passed; and (d) s/he did not her/himself create the danger s/he sought to avoid. Thus, with the “drunk driver” example cited above, the necessity defense will not be recognized if the defendant drove further than was reasonably necessary to get away from the kidnapper, or if some other reasonable alternative was available to her/him.

  3. Now They’ve Gone and Gordon It
    Greenpeace protesters acquitted in coal-activism case
    In a decision that anti-coal activists say is a game-changer, six Greenpeace protesters have been acquitted of nearly $53,000 in criminal-damage charges for painting “Gordon” on a British coal plant. The activists climbed a 650-foot coal-plant chimney last year with the intent to paint “Gordon bin it” in huge letters, aiming to pressure Prime Minister Gordon Brown to disallow new coal plants. They only got to “Gordon” before being served with a high court injunction. In court, the six used a “lawful excuse” defense, arguing that burning coal exacerbates climate change, thus putting property around the world “in immediate need of protection.” Climate scientist James Hansen testified on their behalf, and the jury found in their favor. “This verdict marks a tipping point for the climate change movement,” says chimney-scaler Ben Stewart. “If jurors from the heart of Middle England say it’s legitimate for a direct action group to shut down a coal-fired power station because of the harm it does to our planet, then where does that leave government energy policy?”

    BBC News
    The Times

  4. “Seen in the light of the verdict, the plans to build a new coal plant at Kingsnorth (which could emit as much as the world’s 30 least polluting countries combined every year for 40 or 50 years) show that Gordon Brown’s government is failing to act on climate change. Instead they are pumping out policies that are actively leading us in the wrong (and very dangerous) direction. UK Ministers now find themselves in a very tight corner.”

  5. Direct Action Gets the Goods: Lone man single-handedly cuts UK Carbon output by 2%

    The £12m defences of the most heavily guarded power station in Britain have been breached by a single person who, under the eyes of CCTV cameras, climbed two three-metre (10ft) razor-wired, electrified security fences, walked into the station and crashed a giant 500MW turbine before leaving a calling card reading “no new coal”. He walked out the same way and hopped back over the fence.

    All power from the coal and oil-powered Kingsnorth station in Kent was halted for four hours, in which time it is thought the mystery saboteur’s actions reduced UK climate change emissions by 2%. Enough electricity to power a city the size of Bristol was lost.

  6. New Kingsnorth coal plant delayed

    Controversial plans to build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent have been put on hold for up to three years, energy firm E.On has said.

    It said it would be delayed until about 2016 because electricity demand had fallen during the global recession.

    The site has been a high-profile target for environmental protests by groups that argue a new plant would increase carbon emissions and climate change.

    Greenpeace said E.On’s decision was “good news for the climate”.

  7. Parliament Hill-scaling Greenpeace activists guilty of mischief

    By Chris Cobb, The Ottawa Citizen November 17, 2010

    OTTAWA — Eighteen Greenpeace members who made national and international news last December when they scaled the Parliament Buildings, pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of mischief.

    They will each serve 12-months probation, must keep away from Parliament Hill for a year and are not to communicate or associate with one another to plan or take part in similar demonstrations.

    The 18, from all parts of Canada, are: Paul Baker, Sarah Bernier, Vanessa Butterworth, Seychelle Cloutier-Collard, Cyndie Dubois, David Fujii, Denis Hebert, Olivier Huard, Michael Hudema, June Kendall, Naila Lalji, Michele Lavoie, Glenn MacIntosh, David Major, Jesse Richman, Jessica Schwarz, Yannick St-Jacques and Eryn Wheatley.

    The sentences, a plea bargain between defence and Crown prosecutors, also required the protesters to pay a total $20,000 in costs to the City of Ottawa.

    Charges against one protester were dropped and another — currently out of Canada — will appear next month to receive a similar sentence.

  8. Judge dismisses Koch lawsuit against climate activists

    A U.S. district court in Utah effectively shut down an effort by Koch Industries, the Kansas-based industrial conglomerate whose namesake brothers are vocal skeptics of global warming, to unmask a group of anonymous climate activists who spoofed the company in a mock press release last December.

    The fake statement, posted to a hoax Web site similar to Koch Industries’ own, purported to be an awakening of sorts, in which the company admitted the error of its ways on climate change and committed to cease funding of groups seeking to undermine prevailing climate science.

  9. In September 2014, five climate activists with Rising Tide Seattle managed to halt the passage of a crude oil train at the BNSF Delta rail yard in Everett, Wash. After eight hours blocking the tracks, the five were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and blocking a train. Today, they go on trial.

    In court, the activists — known as the Delta 5 — will argue their act of civil disobedience was necessary. A spokesperson for Rising Tide said the activists “will be the first ever to argue that their actions were justified because of the threat of climate change, using the ‘necessity defense’. The outcome of [the] trial could set national precedent for climate related civil disobedience and is being carefully watched.” The defendants will call on a rail safety expert and a climate scientist to argue that their actions were justified.

  10. Climate-change lawsuits

    Global warming is increasingly being fought in the courtroom

    On November 14th a district court in Oslo, Norway’s capital, will begin hearing the case that inspired the theatrics. Greenpeace and another pressure group, Nature and Youth, allege that by issuing licences to explore for oil in the Arctic, Norway’s government has breached its constitutional obligation to preserve an environment that is “conducive to health” and to maintain environmental “productivity and diversity”. Their case rests not on local harms, for example to wildlife or water quality, but on the contribution any oil extracted will make to global warming which, under the Paris accord of 2015, Norway and 195 other countries have pledged to keep to “well below” 2°C compared with pre-industrial times.

    The targets are governments, which campaigners argue are doing too little to avert climate change, and big energy firms, which they hold responsible for most greenhouse-gas emissions. A day before the Oslo hearings, for instance, a German tribunal will consider an appeal by Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian who sued RWE, a big German electricity producer. He argues that it is partly liable for melting Andean glaciers that have raised the level of water in a lake that threatens to flood Huaraz, his home town.

    Even so, the occasional case succeeds. Two years ago a court in the Netherlands agreed with Urgenda, an environmental group, that the Dutch government’s target of a 17% cut in carbon emissions by 2020, compared with the level in 1990, fell short of its constitutional “duty of care” towards Dutch society. It ordered a cut of at least 25%. The same year a high court in Pakistan upheld an earlier decision in a case brought by Ashgar Leghari, a farmer, that “the delay and lethargy of the State in implementing [its climate policies] offend the fundamental rights of the citizens”. It directed the government to make a list of priorities and create an independent commission to monitor progress.

  11. Gooderham was arrested Aug. 20, 2018 and accused of violating an injunction by blocking access to a Trans Mountain work site in Burnaby, B.C. In interviews with National Observer and in materials presented to the court Dec. 3-4, Gooderham admitted that he sat in the path of workers who were trying to get to the pipeline. But he said he did so expressly for the purpose of trying to present the court with a “defence of necessity.” The defence is allowed in instances of “imminent peril” when, in the words of a 1984 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada (Perka v. The Queen), an offence can be “justified by the pursuit of some greater good.”

  12. “Gooderham and Keegan Pepper-Smith, a lawyer in the B.C. office of Ecojustice, say that a defence of necessity has never succeeded in a Canadian case involving environmental protests. And in this case, Justice Kenneth Affleck of the Supreme Court of British Columbia ultimately dismissed Gooderham’s application to present the defence. In doing so, however, the judge opened a path to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which Gooderham says is where the case belongs. In an interview in January, he called the appeal court, “the perfect venue for arguing an issue that no one wants to talk about, otherwise.””

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